Classical Music Review: New Releases

John Adams - Century Rolls.  Century Rolls (Piano Concerto No. 1); Lollapalooza; Slonimsky's Earbox.  The Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (cond.), Emanuel Ax (piano).  The Hallé Orchestra, Kent Nagano (cond.).  Nonesuch 79607-2. (49'27).

Berkeley composer John Adams made his breakthrough with his first opera, Nixon in China (1985-86), and he's been on the classical map ever since. Easily the most successful and closely followed of all baby boomer composers, Adams has, like the Minimalist he most reveres, Steve Reich, produced a small, but steadily impressive series of works which Nonesuch celebrated last year with a 10-CD set. The company's latest Adams release contains three pieces -- two are from the boxed set -- and so obviously the world premiere recording of the composer's first piano concerto, Century Rolls (1996), with the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi, and Emanuel Ax, as soloist, is the big news here. And it shows the composer we've all grown to love, hate, or have mixed feelings about.

Why, you ask? Well, Adams writes very skillful music, but sometimes his facility has gotten in the way of real expressivity. He certainly knows alot, but erudition isn't enough, and knowing what to say separates the men from the boys. Stravinsky was a learned composer too, and after re-inventing the language of music in pieces like The Rite Of Spring (1913) he made an about-face, and began to write in baroque and classical forms.You could even argue, as Virgil Thomson has, that the Russian spent the greater part of his creative life evoking the history of music. Adams has gotten himself into a similar fix by taking mid-late 19th century forms which he sometimes just tweaks. That lame post-grad student joke, Grand Pianola Music (1982) is a perfect example.  The references are easy and obvious, and the styles don't mix. But his piano concerto really sounds like a fresh take on this three-movement form: the bottle may be old, but Adams seems to have poured new wine in it. The first movement begins lightly enough, with high, bright, dry and sonorous winds, brass and strings. Then the piano enters with a pulsed repetitive figure which begins to change and interact with the orchestra in a surprising parade of styles -- boogie woogie, woozy society music, waltz bits and others in " a kind of automatic re-writing of the pianola music of the (20th) century" (Adams). Gone are the glib stylistic gear shifts of the composer's other concertos -- the clarinet, Gnarly Buttons (1996), and the monotonous, and anti-expressive 1993 one for violin, and even the slow central movement with its disembodied oom-pah straight out of Satie seems genuinely touching , though the real model here is the Mozartean slow movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (1929-1931).  Maybe hiding behind the persona(e) of these two French masters released his New England rectitude. Let's just say it works. And the finale's fast, chopped-up rhythms work too. The Cleveland masters its intricacies and projects its verve, and though one always expects Emanuel Ax to be brilliant he's rarely as supple and spontaneous as he is here.

And speaking of exuberant, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything as brash as Adams' big-band Lollapalooza (1995), and Slonimsky's Earbox (1998), which takes off from Stravinsky's Nightingale. Kent Nagano and Britain's Hallé Orchestra find the ebullient charm in each.  And Nonesuch's sound is warm and reasonably lifelike too.

-Michael McDonagh
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